Web versus Print – “which is greener” and the Long Form

One of the issues in Sustainable Virtual Design is the relative “green-ness” of the web versus print. There’s been an assumption that the web is always better than killing trees. However, this kind of thinking focuses on the ephemeral nature of images on a computer screen – they seem “weightless”. The assumption is that the web itself is equally light on the environment.

In reality, when you put material onto the web, you are substituting paper manufacture, use, and disposal with a huge machine that needs a constant inflow of energy to operate. Web pages draw power every second they are stored, delivered, and viewed onscreen. Though the per-second power may be small, the sheer volume of web media means things add up.

Even with respect to individual pages, over times we get a significant draw of power, ultimately exceeding the energy needed to product and equivalent sheet of paper. Two studies highlight this.

In the most recent study by Alma Media, a Finnish newspaper, an Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) demonstrated that under some conditions, print was less damaging to the environment than digital. That might seem counter-intuitive until you remember that LCA analysis includes the cost of the computers and network in energy terms, as well as the power needed for designers to markup a web page, and the power needed to render it on the user’s screen.

Alma Media Environmental Study

In short, if people use an online newsite for less than about an hour, the web is greener. But, if we shift to “long form” – meaning we read articles rather than skim them – paper is best.

An older study on e-readers versus textbooks the University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Studies came to the same conclusion. If an e-reader was viewed for short periods of time, it was better than printing and distributing school textbooks. However, as the viewing time rose, there was a “crossover” point where a printed textbook was superior to the e-reader.


Finally, in a more recent study, traditional DVD rental was compared to using e-commerce to rent DVDs sent through the mail (like Netflix). In this case, the e-commerce component made the overall process significantly more sustainable.


(you’ll need a free account to access)

What we don’t know from this is whether an Internet download of a DVD is better, or worse, than repeatedly sending DVDs through mail in response to selections on a website.

All of this leads to an interesting conclusion: The web is least sustainable in the “long form”. In other words, if we spend a long time accessing information on the web, its cost rises to match the same information put into physical form. So, a quick browse of news sites is generally green – while reading a “long form” news source like The New Republic http://www.tnr.com/ (just bought by Chris Hughes of Facebook co-founder fame) will be less green. In the latter case, you’re better off getting the printed magazine.

So, long-term this implies a few things:

  1. Websites that have UX that make users complete tasks more quickly are more sustainable
  2. Websites that digest down long-form news to short-form may be more sustainable
  3. Content on the web should be designed for fast reads, understanding and enable quick task completion
  4. Long-form reading on the web should be moved exclusively to low-powered mobile readers, like the low-end Kindles using e-Ink
  5. Using a fancy, right media tablet to read a long book may be misguided. There may be a place for both kinds of portable devices.

There’s a place for print/physical information, specifically in the things that books have always been good at. That is long-term access, and long reads. I recall reading books as a kid over and over. Today, the same kid might skim a few websites. If we value the long form, we should not be in a rush to push everything to the cloud.


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